Oil and Wilderness: Conflict in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Oil and Wilderness:

Conflict in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

by Sean Cerrone


Originally in 1980, the Alaska National Interests Land Conservations Act (ANILCA) declared that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) be set aside for oil exploration and for possible drilling development. In 1987, Congress pushed hard to open the land for oil and gas exploration, but President Clinton vetoed the bill creating a national effort to protect that land from exploitation. Nearing 40 years of existence, domestic oil use threatens the ANWR.


With the Election of Donald Trump in November 2016, Alaskan congressional members – mostly republican – have begun whispers of opening the ANWR for oil and gas natural gas use. The Republicans in congress are requesting to open the refuge for drilling because the estimated amount of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is between 4.8 billion to 29.4 billion barrels of oil as well as a bonus 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.[1] The total amount of oil consumed by the U.S in 2015 measured to 7.08 billion barrels.[2] The ANWR could provide the U.S. economy about 4 years’ worth of energy based on the oil alone.


However, Obama still held office as a lame duck president and one of his possible moves to protect the ANWR was to name in a National Monument under the Antiquities Act. Theodore Roosevelt – a Republican president – first commissioned the Antiquities Act in 1906. The Antiquities Act allows the president to declare national and historic landmarks and any prevent any harm to that land. Any misuse of that land is punishable by fine, sum or conviction.[3] President Obama chose not to go through with this due to an ANILCA provision that prevented declaring an area of more than 5,000 acres of federal land without being passed by Congress. ANILCA states that the federal government must coordinate with the State of Alaska when concerning situations with Alaskan resources.[4] Anticipating President Elect Trump’s exploitation of the land, Obama banned all oil leases for offshore drilling in the Arctic.[5] Although this only protects a fraction of ANWR, it is a protective measure necessary for the preservation of this beautiful landscape of Alaska.


How did the Republican Party, which contained environmentally conscious presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, reverse its role from safe environmental practices to exploitation of land for oil use? Theodore Roosevelt loved the land because he was an avid hunter and wanted to conserve species and resources. He established the Reclamation Service as well and implemented many conservation policies. Richard Nixon began the Environmental Protection Agency and also licensed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in an age where environmentalism was on the rise, but also very controversial. Jimmy Carter took office and belonged to the Democratic Party. Here, there is the first of three ecofriendly democratic presidents also including Clinton and Obama.


However, during the 1980s under The Reagan Administration there was an extreme focus to undermine and overturn Jimmy Carter’s environmental agenda and a heavier focus on fixing the failing economy. Using Reaganomics, which included massive budget cuts for environmental agencies, President Reagan succeeded in rebooting the economy. Part of Reaganomics included the “decontrol of crude oil and refined petroleum products .”[6] This lowered oil prices by opening up more U.S. land for oil drilling and set a standard for future Republican Presidents.


With pressure to drill for oil increasing, the ANWR should be protected by any means possible due to its fragile ecosystem. In an advertisement video [9] , Obama describes the ecosystem as fragile and implies that if Congress does not follow through on labeling the ANWR as Wilderness, then the ecosystem would fall apart. The Wilderness Act is the government’s highest form of protection for public land.[8]


Obama seeks to enact the conservation plan, but he needs Congress to approve it. If the land is declared as Wilderness, then there can be no disturbance of land, and therefore no drilling for oil or fracking for natural gasses. Obama puts pressure on Congress without stating it is an ultimatum. In a way, Obama has eliminated the matter from being his responsibility, so if Congress shuts down his proposal, Obama would not be to blame. By doing this, he is keeping intact the Democratic Party’s image as the “Green Party”.


ANWR’s initial opponent did not come from Republican President Trump, but from Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski is calling Obama’s call for permanent ANWR wilderness “a one-two-three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy .”[9] Here, there is another republican who sees a landscape bountiful with fossil fuels as a resource to benefit the economy. Senator Murkowski is worried that ANWR being labeled as wilderness will permanently lock away Alaska’s opportunity to add to the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline.


In 2017 there will be at most 52 Republicans in the Senate, so they would not dominate any type of vote to open the ANWR due to some moderate conservatives in the party. Republicans have dominated the number of seats in the House of Representatives, but will not be able to vote for opening the ANWR, similar to 2005 when Republicans owned the House, Senate and White House.


The ANWR is safe from drilling for now. With the current Trump Administration, there will inevitably be hard pushes to reopen the refuge for oil excavation. Trump’s Energy Plan involves offshore drilling, onshore drilling, and utilization of domestic natural gas and petroleum. Trump will promote his energy plan to refuel the economy, an economy based on fossil fuel exploitation. President Trump is “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan .” [10] The Climate Action Plan promotes protecting the ANWR, with trump openly advocating against Democratic limitations on energy resources, there will certainly be a deep investigation into the oil-abundant ANWR. As it has been since 1980, the fate of the “pristine and undisturbed” Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in the hands of Congress.
ZaKerra comment:
The history and background given about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is very extensive and well done. It is important to have the context of this struggle when considering possible solutions for protecting the ANWR and the fragile ecosystem. However, it seems like there is no clear answer for continued protection of ANWR as power switches between the parties. Their opposition appears to be very strong, and as the need for oil and money increases, there may be more drastic measures to access this oil. It will be interesting to see what Congress does with the power they have over the fate of ANWR in the coming administration.

[1] Power, Arctic. “How much oil is in ANWR?” Anwrorg. August 15, 2013. Accessed April 15 2017.

[2] “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” How much oil is consumed in the United States? – FAQ – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). March 17, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[3] United States. National Park Service. “American Antiquities Act of 1906 (16USC431-433).” National Parks Service. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[4] Am, and A. Sakuma. “Obama’s offshore drilling ban in Atlantic and Arctic waters could thwart Donald Trump’s energy agenda.” NBCNews.com. December 21, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2017]

[5] Nbrudie. “Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).” ANILCA Program Home. 2010. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[6]”Decontrol of Crude Oil and Refined Petroleum Products.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[7] C-Span. 2017. https://www.c-span.org/video/?324008-1%2Fpresident-obama-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge Accessed April 14, 2017.

[8] “Wilderness.org.” Wilderness Act | Wilderness.org. Accessed April 15, 2017.

[9] C-SPAN. 2017. Alaska Congressional Delegation News Conference on ANWR.” C-SPAN.org. January 26, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2017.

[10] The White House. 2017. “An America First Energy Plan.” January 19, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2017